(Chikamatsu Monogatari)

Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. Japan.

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For donkeyís years I have been wanting to see this rarely-screened film of Kenji Mizoguchi, regarded by Japanese critics as his best, though Western critics prefer Ugetsu Monogatari.  At long last, thanks to a DVD bought in Paris (with French subtitles only) my long wait has been rewarded.

Known under various other titles such as A Story from Chikamatsu and The Tale of the Crucified Lovers, Chikamatsu Monogatari was made in 1954 in just 29 days, an exceptionally short time for the painstaking Mizoguchi.  Chikamatsu was an 18th century puppet-play writer of great renown, regarded by some as a Japanese Shakespeare.  His plays were written and set in feudal times when women were hugely oppressed, adultery (particularly when it crossed class lines) could be punished by crucifixion, and suicide was widely seen as a happy release from lifeís problems.  These were just the kind of themes to appeal to Mizoguchi, the most passionately feminist, along with Carl Dreyer, of all film directors.

This particular story tells of a high-born young woman, Osan, unhappily married to a much older man who owns a calendar-making business.  In a somewhat complex and occasionally farcical chain of events involving an employee, Mohei, who secretly loves Osan, another employee who loves Mohei and is consumed with jealousy, Osanís worthless brother, and some court nobles trying to avoid paying their debts to Osanís husband, Osan and Mohei are unable to avoid the tragic destiny foreshadowed in the Crucified Lovers title variant.

Mizoguchiís visual style is, as always, stunning.  The master of the ďlong takeĒ, he always tries to avoid cutting within scenes, relying instead on deep focus photography (by the great Kazuo Miyagawa) and diagonals cutting across the screen which invariably hint at a world beyond the frame, such as the constant eavesdropping which contributes to the loversí downfall.  The (almost) constantly moving camera creates the impression of a scroll being slowly unrolled to reveal a story, a technique long perfected by this director.  As in Ugetsu Monogatari there is a magnificent scene on a lake where, with the camera stationary for several minutes (unusual for Mizoguchi), the boat carrying Osan and Mohei drifts into view, and their proposed suicide mission is suddenly abandoned by the realisation of their mutual love.

I cannot fault the acting.  Osan is played by Kyoko Kagawa, a popular Japanese actress of the time, familiar to many as the sister in Mizoguchiís Sansho Dayu, the youngest daughter in Ozuís Tokyo Story, and the wife in Kurosawaís High and Low.  Mohei is played by Kazuo Hasegawa, whom I do not recall seeing before, and Osanís father by Eitaro Shindo, who plays the title role in Sansho Dayu.

Chikamatsu Monogatari was the last of Mizoguchiís truly great films.  For me it does not quite match the Shakespearian magnificence of Sansho Dayu, but it is the equal of the spectacularly beautiful Ugetsu Monogatari, whose two intertwined stories do not quite gel together, and of the heartrending Story of the Last Chrysanthemums made many years earlier.  All lovers of Mizoguchiís films should see it if they can.

Alan Pavelin
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